I have been working with researchers in northern Greece who are farming metal. They are experimenting with a trio of shrubs known to scientists as hyperaccumulators, plants which have evolved the capacity to thrive in naturally metal-rich environments. They draw the metal out of the ground and store it in their leaves and stems, where it can be harvest like any other crop. As well as providing a source for rare metals, these plants actively benefit the earth by remediating the soil. Someday, they might replace more destructive forms of mining.

Three plants being tested in Greece are endemic to the region. The native plants of Albania and northern Greece are Alyssum murale, which grows in low bushes topped by bunches of yellow flowers, and Leptoplax emarginata, which has green leaves and white petals.

I have come to understand that these plants embody a certain kind of knowledge because of their evolutionary history and their close association with the soil, climate and wider environment in which they have emerged. Humans have been looking for rare metals for thousands of years, and have developed violent ways of getting them, but plants have been around for a long time, and have found more equitable ways of doing the same thing. Maybe we have something to learn from them.

Scientific research in recent decades has shown us that hyperaccumulators are not the only non-humans that we can learn from. It turns out that unicellular creatures like slime moulds are very good at solving very hard mathematical problems. A test for finding the shortest route between multiple cities can be solved by the lively polycephalum.

Animals have been shown to predict earthquakes in advance. We have learned that the brains of squids and octopuses are spread out through their bodies in ways that allow them to act outside of a central mind. Spiders use their webs as a kind of extended cognitive: a mind outside the body entirely. A new conception of intelligence is emerging from scientific research, which suggests that there are many different kinds of intelligence with their own strengths, competencies and suitabilities.

We are discovering all kinds of abilities which suggest a whole world of being and awareness among non-humans. Plants hear and remember. They demonstrated the ability to respond with chemical defences to the sound of caterpillar munching on leaves even if it came from a tape recorder. In one case, the plants learned to ignore being dropped a short distance when it proved harmless, and to react in the same way when tested days or weeks later. Beneath the forest floor, we have become aware of the commerce and conversations of trees as they trade information between families and species through the networks of fungi which connect their roots, in ways we are only just beginning to understand. These are the kinds of intelligence that other species have learned to survive.

We are starting to recognize that other ways of knowing and acting on the world, from indigenous knowledge systems to changes in our own consumption and patterns of life, are part of the struggle to mitigate and adapt to climate breakdown. We know that the survival of the other species on the planet is dependent on our own abilities and inventions. It's harder for us to hold back the collapse of whole ecosystems on which we depend because of the collapse of the biodiversity. We will either flourish or not.

The deep knowledge possessed by animals, plants and others is one of the reasons why we must protect them. We should be working with them, learning from them and listening to them. The hyperaccumulator plants show us that there are other ways of getting what we need from the planet, as well as reminding us that there are limits to what we should extract, as to turn them into another resource like soya beans or palm oil would be just as damaging. The knowledge that there are other ways of being intelligent on this planet should force us to reexamine our usefulness. Other worlds have been growing around us all along.

  • The author of Ways of Being: Beyond Human Intelligence is James Bridle.